CONFESSIONS OF A TROUBLED MAN

A year ago, crowds danced in the streets as Benjamin Netanyahu swept to power in Israel. Now, in the wake of numerous political crises and his wife's untimely revelations, is it just a question of time before his squabbling government collapses around him?

The bags under his eyes are startling. The lack of dynamism in his voice is uncharacteristic. "It's been a long night without sleep, as you know," says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leaning back in the swivel chair in his Jerusalem office.

The Prime Minister has spent the previous night, with the cabinet in chaos, arguing over how to deal with the resignation of Dan Meridor, the Finance Minister who had held the post since Netanyahu came into power on 31 May 1996. On the morning of our meeting (which the beleaguered Netanyahu had cancelled on six previous occasions), the outgoing Finance Minister was asked on a radio show whether there were things he knew now about Netanyahu that he hadn't known a year ago. "I would rather not comment," he said.

But what if he had? Would he have enough dirt on Netanyahu to bring down the government? "That," says Netanyahu, with a dismissive wave of the hand, "is just the bon ton of the moment. It's not serious."

Above the Prime Minister's head hangs an overpowering close-up photograph of a beaming blonde - his third, current and much criticised wife Sara. The two met on a moving walkway at Amsterdam's Schipol airport in 1989, when Sara was a stewardess with the Israeli airline El Al. "We were going in opposite directions,'' she once said in an interview. "He looked at me until he had to turn his head backwards. Then on the plane he came to look for me."

But Sara has recently been so detrimental to Netanyahu's public image, that he may well wish he hadn't been quite as bold in his pursuit. Last month, during the recording of an Israeli TV show, the First Lady blew up when the interviewer, Ilana Dayan, began to ask her about her husband's infidelity (in 1993 Netanyahu publicly admitted to an affair with Ruth Barr, his image consultant, after an anonymous caller to his home claimed to be in possession of a video tape of the pair in a sexually compromising situation). Israeli papers reported that Sara yelled: "If you want me to say that anyone who cheats is scum, then anyone who cheats is scum." She then went on to say, "You know how many people tried to flirt with me from the Knesset [the parliament]," and to provide details of who is sleeping with whom in political circles.

The controversial recording is now under lock and key and the government- subsidised Israeli Broadcasting Authorities has promised not to release the unedited version. In a country as small as Israel, however, it is just a question of time before the identities of the adulterous politicians are leaked to the press: a development that could cause the Prime Minister untold embarrassment and throw several political careers into jeopardy.

Since Benjamin's affair was revealed four years ago, the Netanyahus have tried hard to present a united front in public. But their cooing and cuddling has not impressed Israelis. "They cannot believe we really love each other. Every time we hold hands it's supposed to be a show. You should see how often we hold hands when we're alone. It's unbelievable," said Sara. Asked whether he manages to spend any time with his family, the Prime Minister tells me that just the previous Friday he had tried to sneak some "rare moments of leisure" alone with his wife and two small sons in a secluded corner of a park. He smiles and says, "You see, I treasure those moments." But some Israelis think that his reasons for staying with Sara are rather more pragmatic: another divorce would seriously damage his political career.

SITTING THERE, beneath her picture, pasty-faced behind the foundation he has forgotten to remove after a television interview, in a crisp white shirt that doesn't quite hide his burgeoning paunch, it's clear Benjamin Netanyahu is not the dynamic man who was elected to power last year in the wake of the Labour prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. During his campaign Netanyahu cut a rather more svelte figure. He was an upright charmer who held his arms aloft at rallies and political gatherings shouting: "Shalom ve bitachon [Peace and security]."

Netanyahu's election tactics were successful and, at 46, he became Israel's youngest ever Prime Minister. One year into his four-year term of office, however, he and Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, are incommunicado, and Net-anyahu is besieged by criticism at home and abroad

"It's a well-known caprice," he says, "the capriciousness of public opinion and the er ... er ... slings public figures are often subjected to, I experience just as anyone else does, but perhaps more than most. But I didn't come into public life expecting fairness. I didn't come expecting to be loved."

As head of the right-wing Likud party, he had had much practice at being hated, even before he became Prime Minister. "Murderer, murderer," yelled the crowds of left-wing Rabin supporters, convinced that Netanyahu had played a part in inciting the hatred among right-wing Orthodox Jews that led to the lodging of the bullet in Rabin's back by Yigal Amir, an Orthodox extremist.

At Rabin's funeral, when Netanyahu went to embrace Dalia Pilosof, the murdered prime minister's daughter whom he knew from his student days, she turned away from him in disgust and said: "Not now. Please, not now."

But still Netanyahu refuses to shoulder any responsibility for the violent anti-Rabin movement. "It wasn't true," he says. "I spoke out against incitement, time and time again ... but this was lost in the wave of recrimination that swept society." However, today there's a new and stronger wave of recrimination and this time it's directed against him.

A recent opinion poll conducted by the Israeli newspaper Maariv shows that far from being loved, "Bibi", as he is known both by his supporters and detractors, has lost the confidence of Israelis, even of those who elected him into power. According to the poll, if elections were to be held in Israel today, only a quarter of the way through his mandate, no more than 33 per cent of the population would vote to keep Netanyahu in the hot seat (compared to the 50.04 per cent who voted him in just over a year ago). Even former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, a member of the Likud party, announced at the end of last month: "I have no confidence in the man and his ways."

Netanyahu is not an instantly likeable character. He is polite to a fault, but his manner is stiff, his responses robotic and his small, dark eyes are cold and expressionless. His enemies accuse him of being soulless. His friends believe that the death of Yoni, his elder brother, who led the Entebbe rescue operation in 1976 (to save Israeli hostages hijacked to Uganda by Arab terrorists) caused Netanyahu such agony that he blocks out all emotion.

He is usually a good talker but now, exhausted and challenged, he has lost his touch as a communicator: he talks at and through you. He also makes no attempt to disguise his loathing of the media which over the last year has tracked him from scandal to scandal and crisis to crisis. Asked what he would have done in another life he looks at me and says, somewhat scornfully: "I wouldn't exchange places with your profession."

Benjamin Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949. His Polish refugee parents instilled in their three sons an adoration of Israel. Benzion, Benjamin's father, was a Zionist, historian and prolific author, best known for his work on the Spanish Inquisition, who put enormous pressure on his children to achieve both academically and professionally. Friends remember Benzion as an autocratic father who spent much of his time with his nose in a book and little of it with his children.

As is prevalent in many Jewish families, the greatest pressure to succeed was placed on the shoulders of the first-born son, but when Yoni was killed that onus fell on Benjamin.

Benjamin spent large chunks of his childhood and early adulthood in the US. He attended high school in Philadelphia, studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and took an MBA at Harvard Business School. He acquired a superb command of English and now when he speaks there is nothing of the heavy accent or the rolled r's common to Hebrew speakers.

Political analysts claim that his Americanised manner helped him into power, but Netanyahu is not convinced. "Some have used these things to attack me," he says, and adds in his usual evasive manner: "I don't know whether they have help-ed or hindered me. I do the things I have to do."

His years in the US perhaps also explain why, ironically, Netanyahu has always remained something of a fish out of water in Israeli society, despite becoming the country's Prime Minister. At one time, he even had dual Israeli/American citizenship.

Courageous, but a loner, is the way colleagues described Netanyahu during his time as a member of an elite unit of the Israeli defence forces in the early Seventies. After leaving the army he thought that he would follow in his father's footsteps and pursue an academic career, but after his time in America and his brother's death, his preoccupation with fighting terrorism led him into politics.

As Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations between 1984 and 1988, he appeared regularly on talk shows and acquired almost pop-star status among Zionists and Orthodox Jews. Talk-show host Larry King invited Netanyahu onto his programme time and again and said of the man: "On a scale of one to 10, as a great guest he's an eight. If he had a sense of humour he'd be a 10."

Back in Israel, he was elected as a Likud MP and took office as Deputy Minister of foreign affairs. He remained an MP throughout the years of Rabin's left-wing government, speaking out against the contents of the Oslo Accords (part of the peace treaty confirmed by Rabin, Peres and Arafat with the famous Whitehouse-lawn handshake in 1993) and the trading of land for peace.

By 1993 he had made a meteoric rise to become leader of the Likud party at the age of 43. It was at this time that, panicked by the potential damage to his reputation, he publicly confessed to having an extra-marital affair. This was not the first known case of infidelity for Netanyahu (his first wife left him after he fell for another woman), and it fortified his reputation as a womaniser. In Israel rumour has it that Sara agreed to stay with him only if he signed a contract stating that he would never leave the country without her. Since that time she has been at his side during overseas trips.

Shimon Peres governed for seven months after Rabin's murder before calling an election at a time when Netanyahu's ratings in the opinion polls were poor. But bus bomb after bus bomb convinced Israelis that security was their number one priority and they fell for Netanyahu's promise that he would make the country a safe place to live.

On the night of 31 May 1996, when Netanyahu became Prime Minister, the streets were filled with singing, dancing right-wingers and weeping left-wingers fearful of the damage their new leader would cause to the peace process. Aware of the deep political divide between right and left, Netanyahu said that as leader of all Israelis, and not just of Likud supporters, he would use his period of office to unite the country to achieve peace. As his popularity continues to fall he remains unrealistically optimistic about achieving his goals, saying just that: "It will take time."

On an international level the greatest crisis Netanyahu has faced this year followed his decision to build homes for Jewish people at Har Homa in East Jerusalem. The area was not covered by the Oslo Accords, which attempted to settle disputes over territories such as Hebron, Jericho and several small Arab villages - yet Israel's disputed capital city is at the very core of the instantly inflammable debate over Palestinian and Israeli rights to the Holy Land.

Netanyahu remains unrepentant about the building programme at Har Homa, which set the flames alight both literally and figuratively to such an extent that in March of this year all the countries of the United Nations - except the US, which abstained - voted against Netanyahu's decision.

Challenged as to his motives, a smug look crosses the Prime Minister's face: "Oslo gives full rights to Israel to build in Jerusalem."

"But you must have known it was going to be antagonistic to the Palestinians?" I ask.

Netanyahu's retort is instant, his tone arrogant. "Oh sure," he replies, stretching his arms out behind his head. "But if we say that we will accept Palestinian dictate in our capital, there are many more demands that would follow, for example the flooding of Israel with Palestinian refugees which effectively means the end of Israel ... I assume the people who are reading this paper would not take kindly to IRA demands on the partition of London and would take a very strong line on that."

Netanyahu also claims that he honoured the Israeli side of the Oslo Accords, despite the Palestinians' failure to renounce the old PLO commitment to destroy the State of Israel.

The Har Homa crisis came hot on the heels of the tunnel trauma that also ignited international fury against Netanyahu. The Prime Minister had decided to create a new entrance to a 4,000-year-old tunnel that runs alongside the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem (the holiest of sites for Jews), and the Golden and Silver Domes (the holiest of sites for Arabs). Previously tourists had entered the tunnel in Jewish West Jerusalem, made a U-turn at the end and exited again through the same door. Netanyahu's decision to make a new opening in the Arab Quarter may well have been within his legal rights but many perceived it to be little more than muscle flexing on his part. Both Jews and Palestinians were injured in the ensuing riots.

Now, with a few months for reflection under his belt, doesn't Netanyahu feel that such actions make it impossible for Arafat to convince his people that Israel is serious about the peace process? And if Arafat is ousted as Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, isn't Netanyahu afraid of the extremists who might replace him?

"It is not my place to interfere in Palestinian domestic politics," says Netanyahu, "and, by the way, I have suggested to them that they adopt the same policy vis-a-vis Israel."

His aggression is thinly veiled, his manner supremely confident, but one detail gives the man away. He shakes his right leg, constantly. At times the movement is almost imperceptible but when he talks of peace the shaking grows violent.

And he refers constantly to peace, to "essential elements in the peace process", to the fact that "we are moving in the direction of peace", and to "what I can do for the Jewish State of Israel"; but whether he believes he can bring Israel closer to peace or not, the fact is that despite some domestic improvements in security, the Middle East is farther away from peace now than it was when he became Prime Minister.

Even though Netanyahu did adhere to the agreement in the Oslo Peace Accords to withdraw Israeli troops from Hebron in January of this year, to allow Palestinians to take control of the area, he is adamant that he will never hand over the occupied Golan Heights in the north of Israel to Syria. He is also determined, as all previous Israeli governments have been, that Jerusalem will never again become a divided city, as it was before the 1967 war, and while he is prepared to offer the Palestinians a measure of autonomy in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, he says there will never be a Palestinian state.

"I have offered them a solution that lets them engage in self-government, but I do not want them to endanger Israel in any way and that means most powers would be held by them for their internal affairs ... but other powers relating to security would be kept by Israel. For example, control of the air space for the prevention of military pacts between Palestinians and say Iran and Iraq ... such pacts could endanger the very survival of Israel."

At the moment, however, it is the very survival of the peace process that is at stake. Netanyahu cannot boast of peace talks, because there are none. At the very best he can, and does, make references to the hypothesis of "when talks resume". But if Arafat and President Assad of Syria are furious with Netanyahu, how can he possibly hope to achieve peace when he has no one with whom to negotiate?

He interrupts me before I finish my question. His answer is reminiscent of his smooth-talking days as Israeli ambassador to the UN. "I don't think the problem is one of personal frustrations," he says. "I have frustrations too. That doesn't mean I say, well, we won't negotiate, or because you won't accept Israeli terms, I'm going to send in the tanks."

Protecting Israel against violence and terrorism is Bibi's baby. In 1991 he wrote a book entitled Terrorism, How the West Can Win and now, when pushed to answer questions on his government's successes, he talks of the reduction of terrorism in the country since he has been in power. "The first achievement is to change the climate of terror in the country," says Netanyahu. What he meant to say was: "The first achievement has been to change the climate of terror in the country." It is one of the few linguistic slips he makes during the interview.

"If you were here 18 months ago, you could not board a bus without the fear that it would explode ... 'Now what has changed?' as we Jews ask at Passover. 'Why is this year different from all other years? The Hamas has changed? The Jihad has changed?' What has changed is that the government of Israel has changed and has made our insistence on security an essential element in the peace process."

It is true that under Netanyahu's govern-ment, the number of terrorist attacks within Israel has decreased. Boarding a bus has become a slightly less hazardous activity than in the first half of 1996, when 58 Israeli passengers were blown up by Hamas suicide bombers. But Netanyahu omits to mention that sipping cappuccino at an outdoor cafe remains a life-threatening pastime in Israel: in March a Hamas suicide bomber blew up himself and four people at a Tel Aviv cafe.

IF THE PAST year has been a bad one for Netanyahu internationally, it has been a disastrous one at home. Domestic scandals have followed party scandals. Party scandals have followed blackmail scandals.

What does the Prime Minister think was his greatest mistake this year?

"Oh, I've made quite a few. The only government that doesn't make mistakes is the government that doesn't do anything."

Yes, but if he had to put his finger on one, what would he say it was?

"Rating the mistakes would be one of my greatest mistakes, so I'm going to avoid it."

Netanyahu, the artful dodger, looks at his watch. His communications director, David Bar Illan, who has been with us throughout the interview, is clearly uncomfortable with the line of questioning, but the subject is too crucial to let it drop. So what were his mistakes?

"Oh, I have made quite a few on a number of appointment procedures and I have said so quite forthrightly ... "

Netanyahu is no doubt alluding to the Bar On blackmail scandal that provoked headlines like "Intrigue and Distrust" at the beginning of the year and that came close to toppling him from power.

In January Netanyahu approved the appointment of Roni Bar On as Attorney General. He took office on a Sunday and resigned the following Monday after a leak hinted that his appointment had been the consequence of "threats". Ariel Derie, the leader of Shas, a right-wing religious party that forms part of the multi-party government coalition, had proposed the appointment of Bar On as Attorney General. Derie had a fraud trial hanging over his head and was a close friend of Bar On's. Netanyahu's Likud party desperately needed the support of the Shas party for a vote supporting the withdrawal of troops from Hebron; Derie knew this and was therefore able to convince the Minister of Justice that Bar On, despite a lack of exceptional credentials, was the man for the job.

When at first the word "blackmail" was uttered in Israeli political circles, Netanyahu appeared on Israeli TV, waved his hands and said: "Kishkush, kishkush [rubbish, rubbish]".

But the story was taken seriously enough for the police to start an investigation and for them to allegedly recommend that Derie, the Minister of Justice and the Prime Minister be taken to court on charges of misconduct.

The Prime Minister has now been cleared without the scandal of any court proceedings but there was a nail-biting period when Netanyahu could not be sure he would escape trial.

"You feel," says the Prime Minister of the many people who believed him to be guilty, "a number of times, that there are great injustices in public life where many things are unfair."

Netanyahu has the habit of saying "you", or "one", when he means "I". Though the Royal "we" is common to people in power, with Netanyahu his avoidance of "I" seems inherent to his personality. He is a man who loathes to talk of feelings. Surely though the constant criticism, not only of his politics but of his style of governing, must hurt him personally?

"No," he says.

So he is thick-skinned?

"No," he says.

He doesn't think he is?

"I do," says his communications director, before he can stop himself.

"I don't think I am," says Netanyahu. "I find it peculiar that other people get hurt so easily." He is hurt, he says, "not by attacks on me, but by attacks on my wife and children."

Attacks on his wife Sara are rife and her recent comments on the antics of her husband's colleagues have further exacerbated increasingly putrid relations within the government. Netan-yahu complains that: "There is still a lingering effort to delegitimise the government ... it has nothing to do with policies."

The truth is that in a country known for its fragmented governments, Netanyahu is being attacked from so many different angles from within his own coalition, that it is becoming impossible for him to present a united front to Israelis, let alone to the rest of the world. The ultra-right-wing Jewish parties within his coalition, for example, have put enormous pressure on him not to accept Reform and Liberal converts to Judaism as authentic Jews, thereby depriving them of the right to live in Israel ... a right currently automatically afforded to all Jews. If he doesn't succumb, he loses at least some of their support. If he does, he loses both the moral and the financial support of Reform and Liberal American Jewry.

The political plots thicken. Natan Sharansky, a one-time Russian refusenik and now head of Israel Be'Aliya, a party within the government coalition, recently threatened to withdraw his support from Netanyahu if the Prime Minister fails to fork out several million dollars for the housing of Russian immigrants. Netanyahu's Foreign Minister David Levy, leader of yet another coalition party, was said to be walking around with a resignation letter in his pocket, ready to produce it at any moment if the Prime Minister didn't agree to exclude the outspoken extreme right-winger Ariel Sharon from his inner cabinet. Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, threatened to leave if he was excluded from the inner cabinet (neither has happened).

Netanyahu is trapped at the centre of a dark swarm of demands and doesn't know which way to turn. As the Israeli political journalist Joel Marcus put it: "He is weakened, because he has promised too many things to too many people."

Last month he barely survived a parliamentary no-confidence vote; his press officer admitted in despair: "Some members of the Likud didn't turn up to vote. It wasn't a pleasant experience.''

If politically he is in the corner of the boxing ring, the situation mirrors his physical predicament. Security surrounding prominent Israeli politicians has always been tight but since the assassination of Rabin it has become suffocating. Throngs of guards wait outside the doors of his office. His every move is followed. Tall and strong as he is, he is not allowed to sit alone in a room with a journalist who has been thoroughly searched lest she should attack him. A few weeks ago, when he went to the cinema, he was accompanied by so many security guards that he had to buy 60 tickets: one for himself, one for his wife and 58 for his entourage. Often when he attends a meeting his car is driven right into the building, to avoid him having to walk in the street. With these constant reminders of his vulnerability does Netanyahu fear for his life?

"Others are charged with that concern," he says and then adds: "Occasionally the thought does cross my mind ... I am more concerned with my family than myself."

So is the Israeli Prime Minister happy? Can he possibly be happy, almost immobilised, like a lion, injured but still roaring, surrounded by the prey that await his demise?

"Yes, of course I'm happy," says Netanyahu. "First of all it's a wonderful job, but it doesn't pay very well. Although it has got its side-benefits ... for example, the gentility of Israeli politics." !

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